One of the central themes of Megan Mayhew Bergman’s fiction concerns the varying identities that people—especially women—worry over, the personas they adopt and adapt for their own purposes. In her latest collection, Almost Famous Women, Bergman explores the stories of thirteen women whose lives and achievements have been lost to the main stream of contemporary memory.
OA contributing editor Jamie Quatro, author of I Want to Show You More, spoke with Bergman about her new book, the writing life, and “trying on ways of being female.”
Jamie Quatro: I suppose any great literary conversation should, right off the bat, root itself in the essentials. So: Eighties music. George Michael—best song? Worst? How do you feel about Phil Collins? Peter Gabriel?
Megan Mayhew Bergman: I listened to “Careless Whisper” roughly six million times alone in my room as a child, and I’m a little worried the music video was my first introduction to sex. (When the “other woman” whips her wet hair back! One day I’m going to try that move.) As an adult I’m partial to the broody, atmospheric “Father Figure.” That video is also great. It goes there in a noir sort of way—obsession.
I once did a tap dance to Phil Collins’s “Two Hearts,” and I still get this joyous feeling when I hear that song. I’m convinced I could still shuffle-ball-change my way through the tune. I find his work polarizing, though. I’m crazy about his early work with Genesis (“Misunderstanding”) and his “Easy Lover” duet with Phil Bailey is a legitimate jam. But “Groovy Kind of Love” has always made me irritable. I can’t take the unbridled sentimentality.
I’m a huge fan of Peter Gabriel and David Byrne, two Eighties artists who I feel were making art that was both good and accessible. I’m also pro-Prince, Stevie Nicks, Aimee Mann, and I will totally resort to MJ’s Number Ones as musical therapy on a gray Vermont afternoon. “Human Nature” makes me float.
I have an encyclopedic knowledge of Eighties music videology that I don't know what to do with. My daughters each have a Cyndi Lauper lullaby session every night. And I’m drunk on nostalgia, which is dangerous, but I love sensual bridges to another time—my imagination can find its way in with song, scent, and taste.
Did you ever obsess over a song? Like play it in your room alone a thousand times? You seem too cool to do something like that. And if you did, it was probably something elegant, like a piano piece you wanted to master. I’m right, aren’t I?
JQ: Prepare to be disillusioned: I went through a phase where I wore an I Dream of Genie outfit to school. We’re talking high school. Bare midriff, balloon pants cinched at the ankles, metallic strapped sandals. Hair in a high pony. Nod, wink. It’s weird, because that show was over before I was born. I must have seen re-runs. Anyhow, there it is, the apex of my coolness.
My first big music obsession was the Grease soundtrack. I would take my cassette player outside, where I could see my reflection in the glass patio windows. This was in Tucson, where I grew up. I’d put on a white nightgown and play “Hopelessly Devoted” over and over, trail my fingers in the pool. I probably actually cried. Then I’d put on “You’re the One That I Want” and dance like a maniac, watching myself in the windows, wishing I had black leather pants. I suppose I was trying on ways of being female—white nightgown Sandy duking it out with black leather Sandy. The good girl I could relate to, the bad girl who was so much more alluring.
But I listened to anything and everything without much discretion. “Father Figure” was a biggie for me, still is. U2 was huge—my first concert was U2, The Joshua Tree tour. Depeche Mode, Yaz, Echo and the Bunnymen. Journey. I went on a date with this older guy—he was twenty-four or twenty-five—when I was a junior in high school. My parents didn’t know. I pulled up in my dad’s ’69 Chevy Malibu convertible, Journey playing on the stereo. He got in and said: “This car and ‘Stone in Love’? You may be young, but you have taste.”
I should send you my Eighties running playlist. Do you listen to music when you run? If so, what’s your go-to? Why do you run? What does running do for your writing, and vice versa?
MMB: I think you just gave me a major therapeutic breakthrough. I totally have a Good Sandy/Bad Sandy complex.
My go-to music for running right now is Sia’s album We Are Born in it’s entirety, “The Glamorous Life” by Sheila E, the Four Tops, and look—I like to run to a little Kanye and Beyoncé. I can’t lie. I need beats.
I almost always listen to music when I run unless it’s raining. I’m a lone runner. I run to quiet my mind, usually six to eight miles a day, five days a week, and I hit my bliss at about mile five. That’s when my inner voice finally shuts up and I just exist in the physical zone. I’ve come to rely on the endorphins after a run to stave off bouts of melancholy. When I get that inner voice to quiet down (I suppose it’s working on life and plot problems miles one through four), it has a cleansing and calming effect on me, and I’m sure that helps the writing.
I know both of us are into yoga and perhaps it’s because we like that moment of mental flatlining, of finding clarity and then surrendering to a little bit of pain, the calmness one can find through exertion. I wonder if we’re toying a bit with that transition from inhabiting the mind, then the body?
JQ: Yeah, there’s something to that: intense physical focus as a way to empty the mind. We’re usually so trapped in our heads, the stories we’re telling ourselves—replaying the past, projecting into the future—that we’re hardly aware of what’s happening now. Intense physical exertion is often the only way I can fully inhabit the present. And when the writing is going well.
You’re in the middle of yoga teacher training. Do you have a favorite pose?
MMB: I like pigeon because I find myself right on that bizarre corner of surrender and pain. I can find the edges as I sink into the floor. I can feel my hips opening. It is work and it is pleasure.
JQ: Pain, surrender, pleasure—sounds like my writing process. Watching chickens peck around in the dirt works for me, too. I’ve only discovered this recently. I’m raising pullets for the first time—illegally, by the way. (I’m banking on the fact that our city building inspector won’t read this.) Do you find watching your chickens astonishingly relaxing? I’ll go out to toss my leftover salad into their run, and an hour later I’ll come back inside in a kind of trance.
MMB: I’m the same way. I name my chickens after, well, Phil Collins songs (I have a Ssssudio and a Ssssudio II) and Motown stars (my glorious rooster is named Luther Vandross).
In the winter and spring we let ours free range, and I watch them from my office window while I write. I’ve lost hours. I love the way they run and I study their factions. I have my favorites (Djuna, a black silkie bantam) and my least favorites (Maniac, the silkie rooster who is worthless and grumpy).
JQ: Ours are Luna, Zelda, Wifi, and—don’t ask, this has something to do with a video game—Skylord Lewis. The kids named them, obviously. Speaking of chickens and winter in Vermont, let’s talk about Bennington. We were students at roughly the same time; in fact I think we had two workshops together. You were such a rock star. What did the MFA do for you? What would you say to people who ask if they should pursue one?
MMB: I don’t know about rock star. Maybe a solid back-up singer. I remember being so insecure during workshops—that pit of dread in your stomach when you’re up! I knew I had some things to learn. I think one of the best skills you pick up in an MFA program that serves you later is learning to give and take criticism. There is a skill in tuning out what feels like noise, then wrapping your fingers around a critique that feels both constructive and in line with your artistic vision.
I’m a sensitive soul, but I have a very gritty work ethic, and I realized early on that I was going to have to put on a 1990s Mel-Gibson-movie battle face and take the spray of critical arrows in order to keep moving forward with my writing.
As for what I would tell potential MFA applicants—how much is this degree worth to you? They’re expensive. So it’s got to do something for you personally and/or professionally. (Bennington gave me a shot in the arm on both fronts.) Don’t get there and bullshit yourself. Work. Don’t bitch about not having time. Don’t poke around on one mediocre story for two years. Get radical. Bleed. There are people with four children (ahem) and practicing physicians writing books. Make the time. Take the punches and get better, or save your money for books and read because—when in doubt and in need of learning—read more.
Is that too practical? Practicality isn’t always at home in art. I think—what would I tell my daughters? I already have a feeling that I might have a poet on my hands. What would you advise your kids?
JQ: The answer depends on which kid we’re talking about! If one of them had the chance to go to a fully funded program, I would tell her (or him) not to hesitate. But I think I’d have to be honest about the T-word, talent. You can’t teach it. It has to be there as a baseline, and if it’s not there, no MFA in the world will do you any good if you want to become a great writer. My fear is that some MFA programs have become revenue-generating machines, and students who would be better suited to other fields of study are coming out with loads of debt with little-to-no hope of book deals.
And now let me undercut everything I just said: I took out loans to go to Bennington. I’ve never regretted it. Low-residency programs often aren’t able to offer the same funding that residential programs can, and there are people who really would benefit from serious MFA studies who can’t uproot, for family or job-related reasons. I’ve met folks who have been working on a novel for ten years and just need the connection to the publishing world that an MFA faculty member could provide. In the end, it’s a tricky question: to MFA or not to MFA? There’s no one right answer.
So, you wrote a novel after your collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise came out with Scribner in 2012, and then scrapped it. Now you’ve published another collection with Scribner, Almost Famous Women, with an entirely different novel to follow. Can you talk about that trajectory?
MMB: Do I have to? Okay. Well—novels aren’t as natural for me as short stories. They will be one day, but they aren’t now. I feel the structure and arc of a short story in my bones.
Also, one thing I’ve realized is that I don’t want to put out an “okay” book. The first novel I wrote had some fine moments, but it netted out at adequate, and that’s not the writer I want to be. My agent, Julie Barer, is also a truth-teller. I’m thankful for that because, you know, I tell lies for a living. To myself sometimes.
You know what else is interesting, a few years into my career? Accepting that I have changed as a person and a writer. Do you feel that way?
JQ: It’s funny, I know I’ve changed as a person, in many ways—who knew I’d actually enjoy cleaning up after chickens?—but I couldn’t begin to tell you how I’ve changed as a writer. Writing feels just as difficult and confusing and heartbreaking and maddening now as it did at first. In fact it feels harder. There’s more at stake, and I know how bad my first drafts are going to be. I see my own flaws and tics. I hope someday to be able to get a high-level perspective on my work and think, wow, the work really did get better with time. But with every story I write, I feel like I’m starting over. I always think: will I be able to do it again? Maybe that was it, the last story I’ll ever write. Maybe I’ve exhausted my stores.
You’re an encouragement to me, your work ethic. A collection, two novels, and now another collection in—how many years? You’ve got a robust orchestral thing going and I’m still plinking away at the high notes.
MMB: You’re hitting some pretty good high notes. Good Sandy approves. Bad Sandy, too.
JQ: Almost Famous Women is orchestral in itself, a kind of collective chorus: voices of women who were, in their historical time periods, denied a voice. When did AFW start coming together in your mind? Did it begin with one story or several stories, and grow from there? Or did you always know you wanted to write a collection linked this way?
MMB: Almost Famous Women represents ten years of my reading life, of chasing down obscure and not-so-obscure biographies about unusual women. Because there were so many holes (or fascinating leads) in their stories, the women started to take on lives inside of my head. But to actually allow myself to write something along the lines of speculative historical fiction, I had to break some personal rules. I had to really believe in the notion Henry James writes about—that novelists need freedom. Let’s hope he would extend the same freedom to story writers.
I finally convinced myself that I deserved to write this book, that I could approach the women and material both academically and artistically, and that I could add meaningful material to the conversations already in progress. I had gotten tired of seeing women from this era—and risk-taking women in general—romanticized, focusing on the pretty-dress, jazz-era, man-loving types. I wanted to talk about grit, loss, tradeoffs, and risk-taking. It has never been easy to be an unusual woman.
JQ: “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” is narrated by Daisy Hilton, a twin conjoined at the hip with her sister Violet. She literally inhabits one body with two minds: “We were somewhere between singular and plural,” Daisy says. Of course this physical condition extends to the metaphorical: though I’m not a conjoined twin, I do know what it’s like to inhabit a single body while feeling split into multiple identities (mother, writer, teacher, etc.). This story also examines action and responsibility: if my twin has sex, am I having it too? If my twin overeats, do I compensate by starving myself? In other words: which parts of me are wholly mine, which are shared, and which fall somewhere in between? Do you see these questions coming up in other stories in the book? (And: would you be willing to talk about some of those tensions in your own life as a wife, mother, daughter, writer, athlete, etc.?)
MMB: I’ve realized lately that I work a lot on the intuition level. I think I was turning questions of identity and femininity over and over in my mind while working on this book. But there was one I kept circling over and over: what does it mean to live passionately? And that modern buzzword, authentically?
I do relate to the feeling of split-consciousness, and I often find parts of myself at war with one another. The Southern belle and the academic/radical. Good Sandy/Bad Sandy. Writer/Mother/Wife. I think that dissonance is what makes us highly specific, fascinating individuals, and hopefully good writers.
JQ: “The Siege At Whale Cay” explores gender politics at the turn of the century. “Joe” Carstairs is one of the most fascinating literary characters I can remember encountering in recent years: a rich lesbian, war-veteran island-owner. As a reader, I both loved her and loathed her (a difficult thing to pull off as a writer, by the way). The way she treats the native islanders is inexcusable. Was this based on fact? How do you maintain a kind of sympathy for your “unlikable” characters?
MMB: One of the hardest things, technically, for me to pull off was getting inside of some of these women, especially someone like Joe who was so bold, so fully herself. She had the drive and the financial resources to live life as she wanted; that’s not an experience I’ve had.
Of all the stories in the collection, I worked hardest on "Siege," editing it over and over again—for two years—and I think one aspect of the story that was continually refined was the reader’s relationship to both Joe and Georgie. Readers love Joe for her boldness and fascinating decisions, they loathe her for her savage ways, and they forgive her because of her early sacrifices and traumas. Readers can see both the manifestation and roots of her boldness. There’s a flawed but lively character on the page, and the reader’s eye can’t help but train itself on her.
Thankfully, I had great material to work with in Joe. I have to recommend the biography on Carstairs: The Queen of Whale Cay, by Kate Summerscale. If any of my stories send readers reaching for related books, all the better.
JQ: I imagine growing up in the South you saw a lot of wacky religious stuff as well as, I’m guessing, some folks with authentic faith. Writing about religion and religious characters can be tricky, as you and I both know. Can you talk about the religious characters in your book? I’m thinking specifically of Lank and Elizabeth in “Saving Butterfly McQueen.”
MMB: There was a boy in high school who saved my life—the first person to befriend me when I moved to a new school at seventeen and felt alone and deeply depressed—and he was so intelligent, thoughtful, and deeply religious. We wrote each other long, passionate letters about life. We argued for hours at a time. And you know what? It was one of the most vivid and intimate relationships of my life. Formative. The angry teenage atheist (me) and the nerdy, compassionate believer (him). We defined ourselves against the other, condescended, questioned, railed, and ultimately, I think, understood each other after all the teenage philosophical feathers had been picked clean. For whatever reason there was love there, and throughout my life I’ve been drawn to religious intellectuals, and they’ve been drawn to me. I can’t explain why.
Sometimes I’ve felt that my lack of religion is just an issue of semantics and logistics. I do feel strongly that humans are primed for spirituality. It works on us for a reason. The world is vast, nature is sublime, and we as a species are one hell of a flawed, destructive, territorial miracle.
I did feel a lot of tension growing up among religious people in the South. I lived in two very evangelical communities, and I always felt like an outsider, as if I was failing an expectation, as if I needed to make a case for my kind and bleeding heart, convince people that it was still good despite its inability to believe, and that I was worthy of friendship and love.
When I was younger, I couldn’t honor the complexity of spirituality. I thought there was only believing, not believing, or being scared to admit you didn’t believe.
In a character, I’m always fascinated by passion and failure because it’s something I have observed in myself and in the world. We fail our ideals.
JQ: I agree. What makes religious characters actually characters (and not caricatures) is the interplay of passion and failure, belief and doubt, the spiritual and the physical. Ms. Flannery is the master: she creates these characters who are caught up in their spiritual belief systems—who are so sure of themselves (think Mrs. May)—and then wham, she drops them into the physical, the carnal, in all its grotesquerie.
I’m reading Thomas Merton’s Seeds of Contemplation right now; he’s brilliant on the relationship between faith and doubt, light and darkness. We often have this idea that faith equals certainty—that increasing faith leads, or should lead, to decreasing doubt—but Merton says it's the opposite: “The very obscurity of faith is an argument of its perfection. It is darkness to our minds because it so far transcends their weakness. The more perfect faith is, the darker it becomes. The closer we get to God, the less is our faith diluted with the half-light of created images and concepts . . . it is in the deepest darkness that we most fully possess God on earth.”
What are you reading right now? I know you’re on book tour—and I know that can sometimes put the reading life on hold—so feel free to talk about what you intend to read when things quiet down.
MMB: Two books that recently wowed me: Martha Graham’s autobiography Blood Memory, and Lily King’s Euphoria. I have Anne Carson, Mary Gaitskill, Jenny Offill, and Jim Shepard by the bed, as well as Megan Marshall’s book on Margaret Fuller. I bought a collected volume of Sontag at Malaprop’s Book Store last week, and I can’t wait to fall in.
JQ: I loved Euphoria (and my God, that cover!)— she’s an amazing writer, with an equally amazing editor. (Grin.)
One last question: you and I have both left the landscapes of our childhood and transplanted in a new region. I grew up in Tucson but settled in the Chattanooga area almost a decade ago; you left your native North Carolina to live in your husband’s native Vermont. What do you miss about your home? Not miss? For my part, I don’t miss the desert heat.
MMB: I can’t really hang with hundred-degree heat the way I used to. Vermont has made me almost cold hardy. Hardier, anyway. The worst is being away from my family, from familiar social interactions, that ease. The farmhouses, the exuberance, the language. The biscuits.
Jamie Quatro is the author of the story collection I Want to Show You More. Her writing has also appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, the New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. She lives with her family in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
Megan Mayhew Bergman was raised in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. She now lives on a small farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont with her veterinarian husband, Bo, two daughters, four dogs, three cats, two goats, and a handful of chickens. In November 2010, Megan was elected Justice of the Peace for the town of Shaftsbury. She occasionally teaches literature at Bennington College and serves on the Board of Directors for the Governor's Institutes of Vermont. She writes a regular sustainability column for Salon.